Aboard the Empire Builder, April 1989

I wrote this from notes I made on the trip I took from Chicago to Los Angeles via Portland, Klamath Falls, and Grant’s Pass.  I never did finish, and after 20+ years the notes have disappeared.  I thought I’d just share what I have for anyone who is interested.

West Through America’s Back Yards

 After what seems like endless packing and repacking, and much anticipation on the part of my family and friends, the time finally comes for me to leave on The Big Adventure. I’m to take Amtrak from Chicago to Portland, from Portland to Klamath Falls  Where? I ask my travel agent when she tells me it’s the closest rail stop to where I really want to be which is Grants Pass (no apostrophe; I have no idea why) Oregon where I will be staying with a friend for a few days.  By then I expect I’ll need the respite from almost constant motion.  From Grants Pass I’ll travel back to Klamath Falls by car where I’ll pick up the Coast Starlight again and head into Los Angeles.  It’s a complex trip and I’m already dreading some of the more awkward phases between train rides.

Chicago’s Union Station is not the cool, elegant place it was when I was a child.  The name conjures romantic images, but I find it noisy, grimy and depressing.  Most of the people in the station seem to be commuters rushing for local trains that will take them home to the suburbs.  Longer distance travelers seem to be mostly seniors and families with children.  I wander to and fro looking for some indication of where my train is boarding.  The television monitors are not helpful, but finally I find my way into the passenger lounge where I am given a gate number.  Then I make the long walk back to the gates, and am finally able to trade my ticket for a boarding pass.

First class passengers get to board first; I guess this is one of the perks of having a sleeping compartment.  The other, of course, is being able to put your feet up.  When I was young I traveled to the coast via coach and got off the train with feet that looked like footballs.  Once aboard the train I spend a few minutes reading instructions, flipping switches, and opening and shutting doors.  My mother, who has come along to see me off, seems impressed with and reassured by the accommodations, though we both find the toilet/shower combination bemusing.  It’s about the size of a porta-potty, but a whole lot better than not having one.

Mom and I talk about the trip to New Orleans we made about twenty-five years earlier and vividly recall flushing the toilets and being able to see the tracks racing by below.  No more.  These toilets are like airline toilets – contained and sanitary.  The child in me is a little disappointed.

My mother detrains and stands outside talking to the car attendant and waving at me.  We wave at each other for quite a while and then, just as we begin to pull out of the station exactly on time, the train chief arrives at my compartment to give me my meal vouchers.  He’s quite nice; he tells me to go on waving.  My arm is beginning to be sore, but I wave Mom out of sight.     Once we’re on our way, the chief returns and explains how to use the vouchers to get food in the dining car.  The price of the sleeping room includes meals.  Next to arrive is the car attendant who introduces herself as Sandra and assures me that she’ll do her best to make sure I have a nice trip.  I thank her. I suspect my mother has asked her to watch out for me.

As we trundle northwest through the neighborhoods, I’m struck with one of those waves of homesickness I get when I contemplate spending more than a few days away from my home and family.  But short of getting off in Glenview or Milwaukee and coming home in defeat and disgrace, I’m in this for the duration, so I bite the bullet and sit down to read the route guide which Amtrak provides to all its passengers.  The guide is full of useful information about the places we’ll be seeing as well as about each stop along the route.  I read that the Milwaukee Road line began life as a plank road for horses and wagons, which I didn’t know, and that Niles is the home of replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which I did.

Already I am enjoying the trip as I see Chicago from a new perspective.  It seems almost an alien landscape to me as we move slowly through the northern suburbs on our way to Milwaukee.  We arrive in that city at a bit after four in the afternoon, a time when downtown Chicago would be teeming with workers heading for trains and busses.  But Milwaukee is so quiet  by comparison that it seems like a small town masquerading as a big city. The buildings are an odd mixture of the very contemporary and the well-preserved antique.

We get underway again and while we’re rolling through Milwaukee suburbs I flag down Sandra and ask her if there’s any way to lose the Muzak which is spilling into the compartment along with announcements and a running commentary on the scenery.  We play with the controls of the speaker for a few minutes, but when we realize that if the music goes the announcements go too, I decide to tough it out.  I figure I’ll stop hearing it eventually anyway.  I am suddenly ravenous and grateful for the complimentary snack baskets provided to all first class passengers.  I eat everything in the little basket, washing down Slim Jims, cheese and crackers with a split of Beaujolais.

About half an hour outside of Milwaukee, around the community of Pewaukee according to my route map, the weather changes ominously.  The sky grows dark and the wind whips up, turning the surface of a nearby lake grey and choppy.  We begin to move faster and as the rain falls it slides down across the windows in silvery streaks.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see lightning.  It could have been a lovely, exciting storm, but it’s moving east as we move west, and soon we’re out of it.  The clouds on the other side of the storm front have a fluffy, just-washed look to them and cathedral-window streaks of sunlight spill through them onto the very black earth of the fields.  Everywhere there are patches of gold, and a landscape which is nearly as familiar to me as the patterns of my own city is made over into something surprising and wonderful.

The farms I’m seeing now are smallish by the standards I will encounter later in the trip, and each one has piles of stones which have been taken from the fields and carried to unused areas.  They stand like cairns at the edges of the farms, piled against fences or ringing lone trees.  Many have the look of permanence, covered with moss and sunken slightly back into the earth, but some have only just been carried to these rings.  Farmers all over the world have been moving stones from the path of plows for millennia: you’d think there could be no more stones to move, but the earth seems tireless in their production.

There are few people out here and fewer animals.  I see cows and the occasional black dog, but the landscape looks almost deserted.  I see a run down factory building with a big sign that says: “Karma.” I didn’t realize it was manufactured in Wisconsin.  Even in a place as busy as the Dells, which we reach at about four hours into the journey, there are not many people on the street.  The town has a surreal look to it.  From the train I can see pink dinosaurs and a space needle ride.  Just beyond the center of town I see little pastel motels with hand-painted signs that say simply: “Motel,” and signs adored with images of pirates and Robin Hood.

The land here is more voluptuous than in Illinois.  Hills roll gently and there are neat rows of pine shoulder-to-shoulder with haphazard stands of birches and poplars, still bare of leaves in mid-April.  In the distance I can see hills topped with trees, all so uniform in height that the bluff looks as if it has been given a crew cut.   The human scale here is small; small towns, small farms, small factories, small cemeteries.  Populations number in the hundreds, not in the millions.  I wonder what it is like to grow up in a community of five hundred souls.

About the time I enter the club car, the train picks up speed, passing through Columbus — does every state have a Columbus and a Woodstock? — the home of a bell cast from a French cannon acquired in the Franco-Prussian war, Portage where traders carried their gear between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers and Tomah, the home of Frank King creator of “Gasoline Alley.”  It is sunset by the time we reach Tomah and the sky is startling.  As it darkens from blue to black ahead of us, it is dominated by a sun so huge and red that it seems as if it can’t possibly be real.  Everyone is commenting on it with pure delight. A woman chants “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” like a mantra for the journey.

In sharp contrast to all this beauty, I begin to notice something which will plague me throughout the trip.  The back roads and empty spaces of America are being used as a vast junkyard.  There are garbage dumps full of plastic trash bags all along the railroad right of way, and automobile graveyards are common.  Some of the wrecks which lie near the tracks are so old they have nearly rusted away, but you can still see the ghostly outlines of cars twenty, thirty, even fifty years old.  I don’t really like what I’m seeing here and yet there is some part of me which recognizes that America is in part defined by this sort of back door, throwaway existence.  We surround ourselves with our stuff. Even when discarded our possessions are still somehow part of our lives.  The old cars I see beside the tracks still seem to have a life of their own, as if they were only waiting to be claimed by some new human creature.

The hills in the distance take on a hazy, blue-grey look.  A deer steps out of the wood as we rush past.  Dinner is announced and I find that there are no private tables; diners are seated in the first available seat, an arrangement I wouldn’t normally find quite so painful, but here, outside my own territory and facing days of nothing but the company of strangers I am unexpectedly shy.  I take refuge in the scenery, in the candy-box sky which provides a welcome topic of conversation when all else fails.  Still, I do manage to talk to my dinner companions.

I have been seated with a woman from Sydney Australia who is spending several months just seeing the U.S., and a woman from Boston who is traveling west to see her family.  Both women came into Chicago on the train from Boston and they chat about long delays and minor derailments.  The Aussie is quiet, assertive and a sugar junkie.  It’s hard not to like her.  She’s enthusiastic about the states up to a point, but finds it hard to understand why so much of it is so dirty and depressing.  I do not offer her any of my speculations on the darker side of the American dream.

The forth person at our table is a silent young man with the look of a Renaissance angel.  He is dark and lovely, and each word we manage to pull from him seems to cause him some inner pain.  He assures us that his supper – vegetarian lasagna – is quite good, and then stares into his pasta which a concentration intended to exclude the rest of the world.  The meal is served on plastic and Styrofoam, a change from the last trip I made eight years earlier when the service was glass and china.  It makes me a little sad to see how Amtrak has changed.  I can remember that last trip and the blunt-spoken criticism by train staff of the Regan administration’s funding cuts.  It seems they were right.  Still, the food is as good as ever and the service is unfailingly cheerful.

After dinner I’m feeling a little more relaxed, so I sit in the lounge for a while and make friends with a baby who takes a great deal of pleasure from just being noticed.  She has an infectious grin and I enjoy holding her. Of course it helps that I can hand her back to her mother at any time.  Traveling with children even on a leisurely and low-key train trip strikes me as being hellish, but this young mother is doing an excellent job of keeping her daughter happy.

When they begin to show the evening movie I return to my compartment.  Sandra makes up my bed and the effect is startling.  The compartment has shrunk down to nothing.  There is barely room to undress and no room to use the sink.  I brush my teeth while kneeling on the bed, then turn out the lights and settle into my bunk.

I intend to read for a while before I sleep, but am distracted by the special, secret pleasure of watching a moonlit landscape move past my window.  The land is very hilly here in Minnesota, and it has the look of a sound sleeper.  In small towns, grain silos stand like patient giants beside the tracks. I imagine them filled with treasure, or terrifying secrets.  Or both.  Even the most prosaic landscape changes at night into something mysterious, vaguely threatening and wholly exciting.

Around midnight we pull into the St. Paul/Minneapolis depot.  This is a long stop and I can see Sandra from my window.  She is standing on the platform talking to a conductor; they both look cold.  While we’re at the station I fall into a fitful sleep despite the noise from the next compartment where it seems there’s a party going on, and the fact that the bed is so hard it’s like sleeping on the floor.  I sleep surprisingly well, rocked in this unfamiliar cradle.

But by six the next morning I am irrevocably awake; the swaying of the train can no longer lull me back into sleep. Anxious to see where we are, I raise the shade and encounter something for which I have no frame of reference. Now, just before dawn, the sky and land are a uniform shade of grey.  There are no landmarks, no trees, bushes, fences, nothing to break the seamlessness flow of earth into sky, not even a discernable horizon line.  Powdery snow devils swirl and sweep across the void.  It’s like traveling along the edge of the world. But in another few minutes, the sun is high enough to cast a few shadows, and give the landscape some form.  It looks as tired as I feel.  Can anyone else be up and about at this hour?

Sandra has already slipped a copy of USA Today under my door, so I begin my morning by catching up on the outside world.  After the shock North Dakota, it’s a pleasure to read sports scores and national weather.  As I read, the sun brightens the landscape and a wide expanse of white clouds breaks up a sky which grows progressively bluer.  The land is so flat out here that it could be used to teach perspective.  Here there are not even those piles of rocks and stones I saw in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  It is as if nature had not enough energy to throw up the smallest protuberance.  I am uncomfortable with such starkness; it strips away my defenses and makes me feel serious and mature.  Later still, when the land begins to rise and fall a bit, I am finally able to feel frivolous again.  I wander down to where there’s an urn of coffee, and some sleepy-looking people chatting about the trip.  Some of them are waiting to get off at Rugby and aren’t looking forward to the icy morning.  Rugby, North Dakota is the geographical center of North America, according to the route guide.  There is a monument to mark the spot and a museum nearby, but all I can see when the doors slide open is a lot of very cold people.  The town itself is drab.  I joke that they should have put the geographical center of the US someplace warmer.  One of the passengers tries to explain the concept to me, and I have to tell him that it was a joke.  It’s early, we both say, and laugh.

My breakfast companions are more cheerful than the group from the night before.  There is a woman traveling to Spokane to see her sister, a man from North Dakota who rides the train regularly, and an older man who is an Amtrak employee.  We talk about the weather (cold), traffic (sparse, even along main highways), and trains (in the Eastern corridor the trains are newer and faster.)  I wonder how to account for the difference between last night’s awkward conversation and this morning’s easy dialog.  Is it the people?  Are they more garrulous?  Or is it that we are now all veterans of a night on board?  I find I am too late for the ‘famous railroad French Toast’ so I order pancakes and find them unremarkable.  The coffee is wonderful, though and I have several cups as we talk.

Just outside Minot the landscape changes dramatically and I find this very exciting for no better reason than that I am sick to death of flat land.  I rejoice too soon.  Suddenly the country flattens out again.  The man from North Dakota assures me that most of the land I’ll be seeing from here to the Rockies will look like this and I begin to wonder about the wisdom of this trip.  They all promise that the Rockies are wonderful.

Like the land, the sky is wide and unbroken.

The morning’s commentary brings some interesting information.  North Dakota is the coldest of the lower forty-eight states; it has more millionaires per capita than any other state and so much military power that if it ever seceded from the United States it could become the third most powerful military nation in the world.  I spend some time trying to correlate these statistics but the connection eludes me.

Occasionally we see small herds of cattle or sheep along the tracks, but the overall impression is of a land deserted.  It is different from the aloneness of the Southwest; this is a fenced in aloneness, a man-made one.  Once, vast herds of buffalo ranged across these plains.  Later great herds of cattle grazed here.  Now there are ramshackle fences and wells.

Lunch reunites me with the Amtrak employee and introduces me to a woman from Kentucky who teaches art and a man from Minneapolis who has recently graduated from a Chiropractic college.  They are traveling to Portland together.  The woman asks me what I do and when I say “I’m a writer,” she seems pleased and engages me in a literary conversation.  She’s reading Anne Tyler (who I have only just discovered) and we try to discuss Tyler’s work, but we haven’t read the same books so our conversation doesn’t go very deep.  She says the book is making her ‘a little spacey,’ but I don’t see any evidence of it.

Train conversation mostly centers around travel.  It’s the one thing we all have in common, and as I am to discover, it’s a topic of great interest to nearly everyone I meet.  Train travelers enjoy the journey as much as the arrival.  I don’t think I’ve ever met an airline passenger who could say as much, though some profess to love to fly on commercial airlines. I feel certain that they’re the same people who like Wonder Bread and instant coffee.

On the way back to my compartment the disembodied voice over the P.A. system exhorts us to look to the left where a herd of buffalo are grazing.  ‘Herd’ is, perhaps, optimistic.  There are about as many animals in the field as there are passengers on the train.  The sight of them shocks me into an unpleasant realization.  We have so much to lose, and already we have thrown much of it away.  Our land is beginning to be tired; it is beginning to look tired.  How much garbage can it absorb?  How many people can it sustain?  How much of its natural resources can we deplete before it becomes unlivable?  And then I realize that this country is only the world in small, and that the same choices will have to be made over and over again, in every country on earth.  It’s not a productive line of thought for someone cut off from her life, and living among strangers, so I pack it away to consider later.

At Havre, Montana there is a stop of about a quarter hour.  I need to walk a bit in the fresh air so I gather up a handful of postcards and go downstairs.  Sandra gives me more postcards from other passengers and asks me to mail them too, which I do.  Then I go into the station and call home just to make sure that my family is coping without me.  I am first to the phones, but by the time I have finished dialing there are twenty people lined up behind me.  I resent having to cut my call short, but I do it because I understand the need to make contact with the familiar.

Just outside the station there is a man selling fruit and vegetables, candy and pop, postcards and magazines.  I think about buying a banana, but by the time I reach the truck there are none to be had.  The train crew is buying up chef’s salads and copies of ‘Redbook and the other passengers are strolling up and down the platform and taking photos of the old steam locomotive on display nearby.  The conductor shouts “all aboard” and I step back on the train to be shut in again.

So many familiar names appear in this section of the route guide: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Chief Joseph (“From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”), Charles Russell, Sitting Bull.  So much of our history has been played out in these lonely places.  I wonder what the American persona would be like if we had no places like this; if we had no Great Plains or tallgrass prairies, no Rocky Mountains or Grand Canyon, no Mojave Desert.  Would there be the same stoicism in our national character?  The same get-it-done mentality?  Would we be as generous and helpful, as rigid and insulated?  Who would we be in a small nation of palm trees and white sand beaches?

All along the fences I can see clumps of tumbleweed.  These have been blown across the open fields to snag on the barbed wire.  They look like the bones of hundreds of little animals all piled neatly like the stones of the Midwest.  Here and there I see a boulder lying in a field like an animal at rest. The train is running at least ninety minutes late by now, possibly closer to two hours.  I’m disappointed because I was looking forward to seeing something of the Rockies before sunset.  When I go in to dinner I can just barely see them looming up in the west, and I wonder if we’ll reach them before night reaches us.

This evening I am seated with the woman from Boston with whom I had dinner the previous night.  Our dinner companions are two men; one a seventy-three year old world traveler, the other a man I estimate to be in his forties who is returning home to Seattle.  The older man is something of a raconteur; he keeps up a running commentary about trains he has ridden all over the world.  He’s fairly interesting and I find myself thinking of him as an amiable eccentric.  The younger man is bright but not as talkative.  I sense that he somehow dislikes the older man and I wonder if it’s because he wants more of our attention.

About midway through our meal I notice snow on the ground.  The mountains are no longer hazy shapes looming over ranchland, but real, snow-covered mountains.  For a Chicago native this is almost unendurably exciting.  While I am staring, awestruck, out of the window, the older man announces that he as just come from South Africa and he has it on good authority that all the Jews down there are Communists and they control the diamond market.  This is so mind-bogglingly absurd that I tear my attention from the mountains to gape at him.  Can he be serious?       The younger man takes immediate offense and says, rather more loudly than necessary, that he finds this impossible to believe.  The older man replies that he doesn’t have to believe it; he can go there himself and see it.  The woman from Boston and I exchange glances.  She is speechless, too.  Then the older man says that all the blacks in South Africa are illegal aliens.  I am agog; I can’t wait to hear how he’ll explain this one.  They’re all Bushmen, he insists, and everyone knows Bushmen don’t have many clothes and so could not have survived the weather down there.  Thus, they must be immigrants just like the Boers who were there first anyway.  He is not, he adds with a winning smile, a propagandist for the South African government.

I sense an argument brewing between the two men, and being of the opinion that the older one is an offensive, but reasonably harmless lunatic whose opinion will never be changed by force or by sweet reason, I see no point in arguing with him.  He launches into a story about how the East Indians are ruining the economy of Java.  The younger man growls alarmingly and I stand up.  “Good night,” I say.  “It’s been real.”

Like my dinner companions, the land has become aggressive.  Our passage is sometimes cut from rock which is so close on both sides of the train that one could reach out and touch it.  The mountains are an affront to our puny humanness; we can’t tame this land, we can merely adapt ourselves to it.  I feel very small.       We travel through the Marias Pass, the lowest passage through the Rockies between Mexico and Canada.  Where we cross the Continental Divide we are traveling at about 5,126 feet above sea level.

Here we are near the Flathead Indian reservation, home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.  Their ecological stance is an admirable one; they have set aside part of their reservation as a tribal wilderness and have banned human entry into grizzly bear habitat.  It both impresses and saddens me to think that people who have been left with so little are the only ones willing to share it with the animals who have been left with less.

I turn off the lights in my compartment in order to see better.  It’s growing dark, but with the lights off and the illumination of a nearly full moon I can still see quite well.  There are large shapes in the trees; animals aware of our passing but indifferent to it.  Just past the Roosevelt monument at the summit, I see the unmistakable outline of a bear against the snow and nearly shout with surprise and pleasure.  This is good medicine, a good omen for the trip.  As it becomes darker the trees become ghostly against the snow.  I watch until there is nothing left to see but dark shapes against darkness.  It’s a clear night and moonlight picks out details here and there, but I’ve lost the sense of what I’m seeing.

Sandra stops by and we chat for a while.  I tell her about the bear and she says she’s sorry she missed it.  I turn in early, but again I open the curtains to look out only to discover that we are in utter blackness.  The noise of the train has become hollow and quite loud.  The route guide tells me that this is the Flathead Tunnel; seven miles long, it is the second longest in the Western Hemisphere.  The guide doesn’t say what the longest one is.  My ears pop several times before I fall asleep.  We are still in the tunnel.

Once more I wake at first light and look out of the window.  The scenery is a lot like that of Montana and North Dakota and it’s like a bad dream.  Did we turn around and go back?  Have I missed Portland all together?              By the time Sandra brings me breakfast — we lost the dining car in Spokane so first class passengers are brought special breakfasts — the landscape has improved dramatically.  Everything has become lush and green as if spring begins in this corner of the country and works its way east.

The train follows the Columbia River for many miles.  The gorge is beautiful with hills and mountains rising up on either side in grand sweeps.  In some places the gorge is craggy and rough-looking, in others it undulates gently.  Here the river is so calm it’s mirror-like.  There are a lot of fishermen out on the banks, watching the train pass and waiting patiently for Chinook salmon.  I see a young man camped out under a bridge.  When the train passes him he turns his back to us and concentrates on his breakfast making me feel like an intruder.

Because of rail maintenance we’re forced to do a lot of backtracking.  We pass the young man under the bridge again, and the other fishermen who must be wondering what we’re doing going back and forth like this.  I wish I had a sign: “Changed our minds; going home.”  On one side of the train we are traveling quite close to the rock face and I can see tough clinging plants which look as though they could easily impale the unwary.  There are wildflowers here too, and amid stands of birch and pine there are fruit trees in bloom.  Houses are built on the edges of sheer cliffs and are ringed with sturdy cyclone fences, presumably to keep children and dogs from rolling over the edge and dropping onto the highway.

The architecture here is more lighthearted than any I’ve seen for days.  There are Victorian-style buildings to soften the harshness of grain silos and boxy warehouses.  Orchards bloom at the foot of mountains, waterfalls cut through the rock on their way to the river.             At the Dalles Dam I can see Mount Hood towering above the landscape.  How can anyone not love mountains?  They are the earth’s heart opened out for everyone to see.

A barge carrying timber chugs along in the opposite direction and a flock of geese circle above the water.  Beaches are rocky and covered with honeycombed driftwood and fallen trees wearing dense coats of moss.  Great rocks in iron red and coppery green lie here and there and it’s all so beautiful that it’s difficult to assimilate for someone who has only ever dreamed of a place like this.  The Rockies are rugged, handsome mountains, but the Cascades are elegant.

I talk for a while to Sandra.  She’s a former nurse who couldn’t take the constant pressure of the ICU.  She is based in Chicago and she goes out on many different runs, but prefers the long ones like this.  Sandra is typical of the Amtrak employees I’ve met.  They love their jobs and are proud to be doing them well.  That’s why there has been so much criticism of the budget cuts, they mean service cuts and Amtrak employees are serious about service.  On all my train trips, and there have been many, I’ve found them to be consistently the nicest, most helpful staff I’ve ever had to deal with.

Portland looks nice enough from the train, but I’m told that they’re having gang problems.  The crime rate has gone up alarmingly.  Along the tracks I can see a lot of colorful graffiti.  There is a Frankenstein face painted at the top of a concrete slab so that the grass above it looks like a green crew cut.      Finally, after what feels like endless toing and froing, we pull into the Portland station.  The train is nearly two hours late and I am beginning to feel like a prisoner about to be released from jail.  I have a three hour layover in Portland, and because of that I don’t feel I can stray too far from the station.            I say goodbye to Sandra and thank her for all her kindness.  She says it was nice to meet me, and I believe she means it.  Part of me hopes she’ll be the car attendant on the way home, but I doubt that’s likely.

Once in the station I check my suitcase and stroll around near the station.  Everything is in bloom here and the sun is warm even though the weather is cool.  There’s really not too much to see in this part of town.  I get directions to go downtown, but decide it sounds too complicated.  After all those hours of just sitting, I’m a little tired, and though the walk has refreshed me, I can’t quite muster the enthusiasm for a bus trip into a strange city.  Instead, I go back to the station with the intention of looking over my notes and having some lunch.  I have which turns out to be the best vegetarian burger I’ve ever eaten and am sorely tempted to order a second one, but decide against it.  I promise myself I’ll have lunch here on the return trip.

While I’m waiting for the Coast Starlight, the train which is going to take me to Klamath Falls I meet a girl from Germany who is spending half a year in the U.S. and the other half in Central and South America.  She is simply wandering, she says, and rarely even knows where she’s going to sleep when she arrives in a new place. She tells me that she’s slept in Penn Station, at JFK airport, and in the homes of strangers.  One night she reached her youth hostel too late to get a place for the night so she got on a bus and asked a nice-looking couple if she could stay with them, that all she needed was a shower and a few feet of floor space.

I can’t even imagine what it must be like to travel this way or to trust strangers so implicitly.  I hope that her luck holds for the rest of the her year.  We talk a little about the places we’ve been. She’s most enthusiastic about Harlem which she has liked better than any other place she’s visited.  She went there with some friends and spent a few evenings at blues clubs.  I tell her about wandering around Copenhagen at one in the morning and feeling absolutely safe, and about the interesting things they have in the vending machines there.  Talking about it makes me want to go back.  I remember once more how much I loved that city.  I could have spent a month there. Longer.

She’s headed north to Seattle and her train, which is the northbound Coast Starlight, leaves about forty minutes before mine.  When she leaves I go back to my notes, but before long I fall into conversation with a woman who is waiting to go south on my train.  She has a brother in Portland; he’s eighteen and is being treated for bone cancer.  She’s been visiting him and staying at the Ronald McDonald house there.  She seems worn out – no surprise there – and though she talks optimistically, I sense a current of despair in her.  I think it must not be going as well as she’s saying. I wish I could say something to her to make her feel better, but I know there’s nothing to be said that she hasn’t already heard.  Instead I buy her a can of pop and we stand together in line.  Sometimes just being physically close to someone is enough to reassure them, I think.

When the time comes to board, we’re separated.  This is a long, long train and the hike to the passenger cars seems endless.  Much of the train is full and I have to scramble for a seat.  I find two together and can’t believe my luck, but in Salem, my seatmate returns.  He only stops to get a pack of cigarettes and then returns to the club car, so I guess I’m luckier than I feared.  Across the aisle from me is a very distinguished gentleman in a three-piece suit.  He settles in and opens his briefcase and I assume he’s going to use his travel time to catch up on some work.  Instead he pulls copies of The Enquirer and The Star out and begins to read them avidly. You just never know.

The lounge attendant is having a good time with the microphone and I get the impression that this is a party train.  Drinks are half-price for as long as the lounge steward says they are.  There is an exodus to the lounge.  I put on my headphones, stretch out and close my eyes.  The trip to Klamath Falls is seven and a half hours long and I’m feeling completely used up.  I nap a bit, and then look out the window until it begins to grow dark.  The farms here are postcard-pretty with their orchards all in bloom.  From time to time we pass llama farms and we’re told that llamas are used for excursions into the mountains where they’re more reliable than horses. Makes sense.  I like llamas; they always look so serene and wise.

When I return from dinner I sense some trouble going on in the back of the car, but I can’t quite figure out what it is.  The seats in front of me are occupied by three boys and a girl, all of whom look to be in their late teens or early twenties, and who have been in the club car for much of the trip.  The boys are traveling together and two of them, who I begin to think of as The Weasel and the Football Player, are courting the girl.  The third, a non-descript blond, seems disinterested.       At about eight they all come trailing back to their seats and I can see that the young men are annoyed.  From what I can hear of their conversation, they’ve been turned out of the club car because they’ve had too much to drink, suggesting that they’re slightly older than I first thought.  The Football Player is talking about taking this up with the train chief but I have a suspicion that he’s mostly blowing off steam.

He and the blond guy go back to the club car; the girl and The Weasel sit down in front of me and put on headphones. I can hear him telling her that this is ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses’ and she makes the appropriate response.  They sing together softly, both slightly out of key.  Later The Football Player returns to his seat.  He tells the girl that he really likes talking to her and that he’d like to see her again.  I can’t help but think that this is a delightfully old-fashioned courtship.  She gives him her telephone number, but doesn’t really encourage him. I suspect that her heart already belongs to The Weasel; she gave him her phone number without being asked.

My suspicion is confirmed when I reach Klamath Falls.  The girl is getting off the train at this stop and she and The Weasel are downstairs saying goodbye.  There’s a lot of cooing and kissing going on, and they’re standing right at the foot of the stairs so that I can’t get by them. I say ‘excuse me’ twice in a civil tone and once more in rather a sharper and louder voice.  They edge over to let me pass and as I detrain, the conductor grins at me.  “Young love,” he says in a decidedly cynical voice that says he’s seen it all, and more than once.  “Preserve me,” I reply.     As I make my way to the station, I finally understand what the trouble was in my car.  A man who was sitting at the back of the car has had way too much to drink, and has became unmanageable.  He’s being put off the train here in Klamath Falls where there are police waiting for him.  I wonder what it’s going to be like for him to wake up in the Klamath Falls drunk tank tomorrow morning instead of wherever it was he was going.

At the station I shoulder my bag and march out into the night.  I’ve been told that the motel is walking distance from the station, and I figure that there’s no point in paying for a cab to take me a couple of blocks. But after I’ve walked less than one, I realize that there is no sign of a motel around here.  The station is in the center of an industrial area and there is nothing open around here.  The only other person I see is a drunk asleep behind a cafe. I walk back to the station and discover that they are about to close.  Station hours correspond roughly to the schedule of the Coast Starlight.  Their night time hours are nine to eleven.  It’s ten forty-five.  I call a cab and beg the station manager not to close until it arrives.  He reassures me that he will stick around and make sure I get safely on my way, which eases my mind somewhat.  It’s not a very auspicious arrival, though.

Fortunately, the cab arrives within ten minutes and the driver is a sweet guy who tells me that I was right not to walk around there after dark, and that whoever told me that the motel was in walking distance of the station was obviously never in Klamath Falls.  “Maybe during the day,” he says.  “Maybe without luggage.”

But once I arrive, I see that the motel is a nice one.  I check in and get my key, and discover that it’s a first-floor room facing the parking lot.  All sorts of paranoid fantasies flash through my mind and every admonition to single women traveling alone comes back to me.  The first commandment of the female traveler: Never take a ground floor room.

I tell myself I can cope; I’ll just shove the chair under the doorknob.  Only, the doorknob is too high and the chair can only lean against it.  Fine, I think, if anyone breaks in, they’ll hit the chair and I’ll wake up.      I am perishing for a shower so I go in and start the water, and then I think:  Bates Motel.  Oh, no.  In the shower, with the water running, I’d never hear an intruder until it was too late.        I take the fastest shower of my life; I am, in fact, a candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records.  Dripping wet, I poke my head out of the shower.  No one in the bathroom; that’s good.  I listen.  Nothing being ransacked in the bedroom; that’s good, too.     By now, I have so much adrenaline in my system that I couldn’t go to sleep if I wanted to which I don’t.  I call home and chat for a while, but it’s late there and my family wants to sleep.  I call friends.  The calls keep me feeling as though I’m in touch with the familiar.  By one, I’ve done everything I can think of; I’ve checked in with family and friends, written postcards, reviewed my notes and recopied some of them.  I’ve unpacked, repacked, chosen my clothes for tomorrow and I’m still not tired.  I decide to get into bed anyway.  I can always watch television for a while.

The only thing on is ‘Vice Versa,’ a pleasant little film about a father and son who switch places.  I have all the lights on, the television turned up, and the telephone right beside me on a chair.  I also have the yellow pages open to emergency numbers and just for good measure I have my Swiss Army knife open and lying on top of the phone book. Is this paranoia?  Of course it is.  I’m tired and I’m alone in a strange place. Rational thought went out the window about midnight.   I finally fall asleep watching some grade ‘c’ horror flick.


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